This article is published as part of a series of Designer Interviews, where we’re speaking to some of the industry’s most crucial voices about this current – and highly unique – moment in fashion history.
Dries Van Noten’s Spring/Summer 2021 collection was developed during lockdown, in the early stages at least. The designer was working from his home in the countryside outside Antwerp and communicating with his team via Zoom.
“It was a new way of working and also a time for reflection,” he says when we speak, the morning before images of his latest offering are officially released. Van Noten is now back in the warehouse building that houses his business, located on the water front of the Belgian city, famed for its port, its cathedral and, of course, its fashion. “It was a time to think about what’s going to be important in the future; will there still even be fashion in the future? Talking with my creative team one thing became clear: the collection had to be rather simple, rather straightforward but not boring – fresh and optimistic. We wanted to find opportunity in limitation. We looked at a lot of things, we talked about light, about colour. We wanted it to be about individuality, not uniformity, about open-mindedness. And we talked about beauty but not about beauty in the past – about a very active beauty, about finding beauty in smaller things.”
Van Noten next came across the oeuvre of the New Zealand-born filmmaker and artist, Len Lye, and was struck by its inventiveness. “When I first saw his films, I thought they could have been made in the 60s and 70s – psychedelia – but, in fact, it was in the 20s, 30s and 40s.” So piqued was the designer’s interest by Lye’s experimental movies – and later by his essays and his mobiles: he was among the earliest practitioners of kinetic sculpture or, as the artist himself put it, “the art of movement” – that Van Noten got in touch with the Len Lye Foundation and looked further. The result is a formal collaboration and a celebration of a pioneering figurehead of the post-war avant-garde and friend and associate of Man Ray, among others. “His body of work is so different,” Van Noten says, “so unknown. We found it super interesting that Lye painted directly onto film, painted, scratched, made little stencils – incredible. He is an artist who is fascinated by movement and movement for me is also important. I wanted to capture the essence of his work in dress. I love to see clothes moving, I love to see people moving in clothes which is why I love fashion shows. But those are not possible now.”
Himself a pioneer – of experiential fashion shows not least – Van Noten, whose presentations are increasingly among the most impactful on the Paris schedule, never contemplated showing to a live audience this time around. Instead, early on in the process he went “back to books, to the library which I hadn’t done for some time. It occurred to me then that the building blocks of fashion culture are visual, that, until really quite recently, fashion was primarily documented in pictures. If you think of Ray Petri and Buffalo, or Paul Poiret, it was all about image. We knew early on that we were not going to be able to do a live show and when we thought about communicating through image we immediately thought of Viviane Sassen. She is always on our mood board. Her work is so minimal in a way but also so suggestive.”
It is striking that the same thing might be said about Van Noten’s own output. And of his work this season for sure. If anyone is a master at fusing utilitarian dress with the elevated volumes and fabrication of haute couture it is Van Noten. “The intention was to simplify a lot of things,” he says. “To be quite direct. Instead of using all of our jacquards we worked mainly with cotton and organza and thought about making things that were stiff – or soft. With embroidery too we went in a different direction. We couldn’t travel to India this time which we would normally do.” Van Noten was among the first designers to use Indian embroiderers: when he originally applied the words Made in India to his fashion, his audience was perplexed, but now understands the exceptional craftsmanship that may imply. “We had to find a way to work with people there that was different too but tried to make it very positive,” he says.
If the total look of the collection is bold, bright and beautiful indeed and the embroidery is graphic as opposed to narrative, any apparent simplicity is deceptive. “There is the complexity of prints that continue right across garments, from skirts onto jackets, over the lapels, so that it really looks as if the image is projected onto the fabric, that it’s not just striped material in the first place.” The idea of projection harks back to the Len Lye archive – and all the prints in the collection spring from frames in his films – so too do entire texts sprawling across a plain white shift, say, in Lye’s own hand. Such monochromatic garments – and these include Van Noten’s signature tailoring worn now with natty Bermudas – are in direct contrast with saturated orange, pink, metallic gold and silver pieces, with rainbow waves, psychedelic sunbursts, exploding ruffles and solarised stills all as intensely dynamic as they are lovely.
For the first time from this designer, Spring/Summer 2021 is a ‘show’, per se, for men and women. Van Noten says, it was his instinct to do it that way, a reflection of a certain reality, of the times in which we live. “Normally I approach men’s and women’s from quite a different point of view but this time I wanted a single point of view, to design one big collection. In the end, who cares whether you are a man or a woman? But it was nice to have a dialogue between the men’s and the women’s right from the start.”
And it is through Viviane Sassen’s lens that Van Noten’s work is communicated. The designer – and long-time collaborators Nancy Rohde (styling), Sam McKnight (hair) and Inge Grognard (make-up) – travelled to Rotterdam where the photographer shot the clothes on the beach. To surmise: “With Viviane, as I said, on one side there is restriction, minimalism, on the other a lot of suggestion and that was exactly what I was looking for. For me it was an incredible experience. To see how clear she is, how fast sometimes. The collection really came alive that way. There is that freshness, that sense of life that is so vivid in her pictures. And I loved the idea of lightness, of white clouds moving across a clear blue sky.”